The route from New York’s Pennsylvania Station (see Part II, minus the swamp-like humidity) to the final stop of this ridiculously time-precious trip, took me through another city I would like to spend more time in: Baltimore. No, not high on every tourist’s agenda, the filling in a Philadelphia and Washington DC run-down sandwich, my reason for visiting revolves around what is regarded as one of the best TV shows ever made.
‘The Wire’ ran for five seasons, and was one of the grittiest hardcore cop shows made for television. It was slow, uncompromising, engaging and utterly gripping. Using actors from both sides of the Atlantic, the show revolved around the dysfunctional cop Jimmy McNulty, played by Englishman Dominic West. Drugs, booze, ship yard unionists, school yard gangs, more drugs, government corruption, total urban decay, modern day economic segregation – it dealt with issues that bubble under the surface of USA today, not shy of using industrial and deep street language that not everyone will understand at first.
One of the strengths of the series, in this writer’s humble opinion, was the dialogue, guided wonderfully by my favourite author – of crime or any other genre, for that matter – George Pelacanos. He has written all of his novels around the streets of WashingtonDC, and almost all I think I know about the streets of this city away from the White House are from his words. Of Greek descent, his work started with a DC quartet of books, set in the 50’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and chronicled the development of a Greek immigrant family, through generations and decades. He has written numerous books since, with different characters or decades, but all one common denominator: DC. There is, in my opinion, no better author at detailing the minutiae of specifics: every music reference, colourway of sneaker, model or part of a car, sporting reference, fashion trend, street slang, etc. is absolutely perfectly researched. Being the pedant that I am, with topics such as early 90’s independent bands or 70’s soul, the albums, gigs and timeframes of tours are beyond additional research – you just know he is right, and that makes the fiction he writes so much more real when set against such an accurate and flawless background.
To start my limited time in the nation’s capital in the grand hall of Union Station was to start my dialogue with a jaw-dropping “fuck” – I don’t know at what age the sheer structure, scale and beauty of architecture can either take the breath or away, or shape the expulsion of air into an expletive. As children, my brother and I would be marched around National Trust stately homes, being told not to touch anything, whilst our parents stared in admiration at ballrooms, bedrooms and banqueting suites of fading regality. We, for the record, hated it. But there must be a trigger in maturity that goes some way to reversing that. Perhaps once you buy your own house, and you think to yourself “it must cost a fortune to heat/carpet/decorate this”. Anyway, it is a truly awesome sight – take note,London’s Euston, where I imagine there is a train to an asylum from a hidden platform, such are the mutants that wander around that particular concourse. Ironically enough, Union station was based on the original Euston’s grandeur. Progress, be damned!
The same slow-train-to-mong may well go to the L’Enfant Plaza hotel in Washington – a square slab of the least romantic architecture since, er, Euston station. Horrifically refurbished in approximately 1987, the various patterns of wallpaper would have reduced the need for hallucinogens in the most hardcore of 60’s biker. It was like Laura Ashley had projectile vomited a floral lunch through her nose, hosed down with white wine. Adopting the most foppish Hugh Grant accent one can muster when in the colonies, I approached the desk and promptly asked where the Mandarin Oriental hotel was – a tactic I adopt to ensure the best service from the staff as to act as a warning that I might take my custom elsewhere. The staff, on this occasion, were not buying it.
“Er, because one wishes to meet a client, and he is obviously more important as he can afford more salubrious surroundings than this particular hostel”
And so, yet again, I was shown the over-shoulder point of disdain that had followed me from New York. I bade him thanks and promptly started jogging out of the lobby towards cleanliness and the 2000s.
When in anew city, I always look to accompany any wandering through streets with music that was created locally (if I have any). For me, DC is all about the Dischord label, a fiercely independent hardcore/punk label, and their champion band Fugazi. I’ll save my ramblings about their impact on impressionable youth (yes, another band, sorry), and my admiration for their principals for another time, but their stripped-down energy and aggression was the perfect foil for a stroll through a deserted business district, so empty it felt like I owned it.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that Kenny ‘the Devil in Denim’ Chesney was playing a show, my meeting was cancelled at the venue I was supposed to be visiting, therefore leaving me to my own devices for a few hours before catching my return flight. Some brief time for sightseeing, which was convenient, as my ‘hotel’ was close to the main political sights. Being a big fan of the West Wing, the White House was essential visiting, and is much smaller than I thought it would be, whilst Washington Monument was much bigger. To be in the birthplace of American politics, is to begin taking in the history that this rich country has in abundance. Not all of it good, but at some point, decisions taken in this city have affected everybody reading this in one way or another. And well worth seeing.
I am going to be back in the cities I encountered on this trip for a lot longer in July – as well as some others – and am looking at getting under the skin of them: off the main tourist drags, the sights, the tourists, and get to see more of the landscapes that writers such as Pelacanos, or Lawrence Block from NYC document so accurately. A quick lunch in Georgetown, near the renowned university, showed me streets ofWashington that I hadn’t seen, and were reminiscent of my start in Boston: leafy, boutique-lined and easy. There is a side of every city in the World that has a tail to this pretty and coiffeured head, but I want to see it. Upon returning I won’t feel like a stranger, and if I can do my side of it, if you ever visit these you won’t feel like one either.
See you in July for the benotour.
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